As Computer Science departments see increasing enrollments, first generation college students and students from low-income backgrounds often suffer due to larger class sizes, scarcity of resources (such as fewer opportunities and longer waits to meet one-on-one with the professor or teaching assistant), and lack of community. Computer science as a field continues to struggle with recruiting and retaining diverse students. This leads to students struggling to find a community of like-minded students with whom they can study, take classes, attend departmental events, and so on.
In our project, funded by the NSF S-STEM program, we are investigating the benefits of sustained support structures to help academically talented students from low-income backgrounds. As part of this program, before their first year at our university, we conducted a one-week Early Arrival program (Head Start) to introduce students to educational resources on campus as well as to introduce them to preliminary computer science concepts. The Head Start program also includes social activities with faculty, current students, student leaders from our department's student organizations, and tutors from the peer tutoring center in our department. The program was open to other incoming local freshmen as well. This helped students in our program make connections with other incoming students.
Based on the survey conducted at the end of the Head Start program, the sessions the students found most useful were an introduction to the major requirements and a discussion of potential career paths for CS majors. The students also were extremely satisfied with the organized social events with student leaders from Women in Tech and the Diversity in Computing student groups in our department. The Faculty Scavenger Hunt, which was designed to allow students to get to know the faculty members in the department in a fun and engaging manner, was also rated highly by students. Students were not as satisfied with workshops focused on general study skills and time management. In the future we plan to rework these sessions to include a more clear connection to the CS major
One of the key goals of the Head Start program is to build student confidence and a support structure that will encourage students to leverage available resources during their remaining years of study. All but one student indicated that they felt the Head Start program left them very prepared or extremely prepared to take advantage of the resources available in the college. Student comments suggest that overall, the program was successful:
“Getting to know the community was amazing, and the information was valuable to receive.”
“I thought it was a thoughtful, helpful program that made me better overall as a CS student.”
We are encouraged by these survey results and student comments. We will build on this head start experience as an important part of the larger project to prepare low-income, academically talented students for the technology workforce by offering a comprehensive suite of structured opportunities to learn from and contribute back to the departmental, technical, and broader local community.
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